Are wired fabrics the future of electronics?
TSUKUBA, Japan — The electronic devices of the future may all be pliable, soft and supremely portable thanks to studies under way using “wired fabrics.” Research is currently happening to develop handkerchiefs that serve as keyboards, floor mats with built-in integrated circuit (IC) tags and other products that fuse hard electronics with soft fabrics.
These new wired fabrics are lighter than traditional electronic parts and can be easily installed in a wide variety of locations.
In one example at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, a thin cloth similar to a handkerchief measuring about 10 centimeters by 25 centimeters was laid before a personal computer.
The cloth was connected to the computer. When a researcher tapped the cloth in the same way as one would type on a keyboard, letters began to appear on the screen.
Seiichi Takamatsu, 33, a researcher of the AIST’s Research Center for Ubiquitous MEMS and Micro Engineering, said, “You can fold this device and keep it in your pocket.” MEMS stands for “micro electromechanical systems.”
Pressure-sensing threads are woven into the cloth in gridlike patterns at about two-centimeter intervals.
The diameter of a single thread is 485 micrometers. When a user taps the cloth, the cross section of the sensor thread flattens into an elliptical shape to change the status of electrical currents in the section touched, and signals are transmitted to the computer.
Conductive polymer coating the surface of the threads makes the transmission possible. The cloth functions like a plastic that also conducts electricity.
Hideki Shirakawa, professor emeritus at the University of Tsukuba, is a pioneer in the field who made great contributions to the development of the technology. In 2000, he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
The recent trend of creating electronic devices made of fabrics would not have been possible without the progress made in developing sensor threads.
As the threads are soft, existing weaving machines can be altered to produce fabrics that contain them.
Researchers hope to create threads that can detect temperature changes, which would have applications in the health field, Takamatsu said.
Scientists also plan to use floor mats containing electric circuits to improve operations at nursing care facilities, by, for example, tracking residents’ movements.
In 2009, a team led by Atsuji Masuda, 45, senior researcher at the Industrial Technology Center of Fukui Prefecture, conducted an experiment in a nursing care facility over the course of about two months.
Masuda’s team created mats with cloth containing IC tags — comprising IC chips, transmission antennas and electric circuits.
The tags were placed inside slim strips of film up to 25 millimeters wide, which were woven into the cloth and covered by ordinary threads on both sides.
Researchers placed the mats in each room, as well as bathroom doorways and hallway floors. With the consent of residents, researchers attached small readers to wheelchairs that exchanged signals with the IC tags to trace their movements throughout the facility.
The results showed details of each user’s movement patterns, such as when they used rest rooms and elevators.
Workers at the nursing facility said the technology can be useful in improving care, according to Masuda.
One advantage of this monitoring method is that the devices can be installed easily in many kinds of places.
Usually, installing sensors and electronic devices with IC chips in areas where wheelchairs pass through requires burying the devices underneath the floor. But the mats created by Masuda’s team can simply be laid on the floor.
Teruo Hori, a professor at the University of Fukui’s Headquarters for Innovative Society-Academia Cooperation, said, “There are many scenarios in which cloth with IC tags and other such electronic devices can be useful.”
Hori, a fiber science researcher and an expert on fiber processing technologies, said some hospitals in Europe have patients wear vests with sensors installed to better monitor their status. The vests transmit some of their vital signs to their caregivers.
Sensory fibers also can be placed in branded bags and clothing to distinguish them from counterfeit goods.
The concept of “wearable computers” emerged during the 1970s in Europe. In the 1990s, Western countries conducted studies to develop clothing that could identify the locations of soldiers on the battleground.
In Japan, studies using wearable electronic devices started in 1995, researchers said.
There are still some challenges to overcome before the technology can be put to everyday use. If IC readers are attached to all residents in a nursing care facility, it will be necessary to develop long-lasting batteries. The cost remains unknown.
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